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home : opinions : opinions May 1, 2016

3/23/2012 10:20:00 AM
Senators need to be held accountable for mining vote

Richard Moore
Investigative Reporter


Word has it this week that Citizens for Responsible Government is launching recall efforts against the two state senators perceived to be most responsible for the defeat of much-needed mining legislation, Republican Sen. Dale Schultz of Richland Center and Democratic Sen. Bob Jauch of Poplar.

It's a bad idea because we keep going around on the recall merry-go-round with no end in sight. As Gov. Scott Walker suggested this week, we'd all be better off talking about how to move the state forward rather than rattling on about recalling people. On the other hand, perhaps taking recalls to the extreme is the only way to finally get people fed up enough to reform the process.

All that said, Mr. Schultz and Mr. Jauch do need to be held accountable when their re-elections arrive, whenever that happens. And so does Sen. Jim Holperin (D-Conover) for his critical vote against bringing good-paying jobs to the region.

Indeed, Mr. Holperin's vote is probably the most significant and negative one he has taken in his time in the Senate. He helped to kill a $1.5 billion investment that could have created hundreds of high-wage jobs directly and likely thousands more indirectly.

To be sure, nobody really knows how many jobs a mine would create until the operation is under way, but, as even Mr. Holperin acknowledged in a recent interview with The Lakeland Times, the mine would have brought real jobs and real money to northern Wisconsin.

And to the Lakeland area. Known for our good schools, recreational opportunities, medical facilities, shops and restaurants, our towns would have attracted many workers. Again, how many we don't know, but common sense tells you the region would have benefited greatly.

In a time of economic uncertainty and declining property values, when area businesses are struggling to stay open, that mine would have been serious business. With his vote to kill the Assembly mining bill, Mr. Holperin thrust a dagger into the heart of his own district.

The opponents of the Assembly-passed version of the legislation and backers of a Schultz-Jauch countermeasure say theirs was a compromise designed to protect the environment. That's poppycock. It was designed to kill any iron mining project that came along.

The environmentalists were all up in arms about wetlands, and air and water quality, all right, but there was nothing in the Assembly bill that would have compromised the state's standards. Yes, it gave operators flexibility in shoreland and floodplain zones, but it did not completely relieve them of those zoning standards. Operators could undertake only those activities specifically authorized in their permit, and no one could locate or operate a mining waste site in a floodplain.

What the bill also did was recognize that an iron mining project is site-specific, and that might mean the destruction of some wetlands. It gave mining operators greater flexibility in that regard but required any company destroying wetlands to create new ones elsewhere or pay into a mitigation fund. The bill required any wetlands impacted to be mitigated at a ratio of about 1.5 to 1.

In other words, the state would end up with more, not fewer, wetlands. And, as the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce has pointed out, the mining company would have had to reclaim and restore the site and abide by a DNR-approved maintenance plan. Companies would also have to acquire a gaggle of air and water and wetland permits, not to mention undergoing intensive federal review.

Not only that, as WMC also observed, the new law would not guarantee that a mine would be approved. The DNR would still have had the decision in its hands, and it could nix any project it felt compromised natural resources too severely. Presumptive approval does not mean final approval.

But that's the problem with the Schultz-Jauch-Holperin environmental crowd. They say they want a mining bill, but in truth they believe any mining project would compromise the environment too severely.

And so they offered up a frivolous piece of legislation that would make sure Wisconsin stays closed for mining business. They put in provisions for contested case hearings, for instance, which is simply the way environmentalists keep projects tied up in court for years.

They put uncertain timelines into the measure, providing for a 540-day permitting process (the Assembly version wrapped things up in 360 days), and then inserted several ways the state could extend the process even more, including allowing the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to seek a delay. In other words, their bill would have ceded Wisconsin's mining permit process to the federal government. What mining do you think would take place then?

The long time frame for getting a permit in Wisconsin has been one of the great impediments to mining in the state, and the Schultz-Jauch bill would cement that uncertainty into law.

The Schultz-Jauch bill would also have slapped mining companies with an up-front $25 million tax just to operate for the first five years. Yeah, that's really going to attract investors. Come on to Wisconsin and create jobs, and, for that, we are going to tax you millions of dollars before you even open the gates.

The bill would have added new regulations, WMC observed, such as those for high-capacity wells, that would apply to no other industry, and it wrapped more bureaucracy into the process by injecting a DOA administrative law judge into the process from the get-go.

In short, while the Assembly bill tried to create separate iron-mining legislation to enable mining projects to move safely forward in a reasonable regulatory environment, the Schultz-Jauch bill would have created separate iron-mining legislation just to make sure no iron mine would ever move forward. It was an anti-mining bill. Punitive taxes, an uncertain and lengthy permit process, almost certain protracted litigation and delays, onerous and discriminatory regulations - all those and more add up to subterfuge and sabotage, not compromise.

Opponents of the Assembly bill say the Flambeau mine was successfully permitted under the current rules, and the failure of the Crandon mine was due to serious deficiencies in its application. As such, they reason, the same rules can apply for an iron mine.

The statements about the mines are both true, but there are some serious imperfections in the line of reasoning.

First, both those mines were - or would have been - sulfide mines, which is a completely different and more potentially toxic kind of mine. To subject iron ore mines to those same rules is to ignore that fundamental scientific distinction.

Unlike minerals mined from sulfide ores, the separation process in iron mining does require the use of toxic chemicals. Is it not reasonable to provide a separate set of regulations - though regulations they still are - for a completely separate extraction process? Indeed, can we not better protect the environment by crafting regulations that actually speak to the needs involved?

More important, what the Flambeau and Crandon experiences tell us is that the state would be just as responsible with an iron mining permitting process as it was in those cases. In the Flambeau case, the state allowed a mine to successfully operate; with the Crandon mine, the process protected the resource. The Crandon project was indeed seriously defective - running a toxic pipeline through various towns to the Wisconsin River was one harebrained idea - and the project rightly failed. I opposed it then and I would today.

But iron mining is different, and it deserves standards that recognize the differences. Those standards must protect the environment, but, again, looking at the provisions of the Assembly bill, there's no reason to think they wouldn't. And, based on recent history, there's no reason to think the state would permit an environmentally dangerous iron ore mine any more than it would a dangerous sulfide mine.

So if protecting the environment is a red herring here - and let's face it, everybody and their brothers know that mine could be operated safely - what's the real intention? Well, a couple of things.

One, bringing jobs and prosperity to northern Wisconsin is anathema to radical environmentalists and aestheticists who have longed pursued an agenda to essentially purge the North of people by strangling the economy. Jobs are only supposed to be created in the southern part of state, if at all. Indeed, some do not want Wisconsin open for business anywhere.

Then, too, there's a whole lot of politics being played as we head into the big recalls. Opponents think they have scored politically, depriving Gov. Scott Walker of a major jobs-creation victory, and they further think they can portray him and the Republicans as the obstructionists who did not compromise.

That is risky political strategy, indeed. Wisconsinites are not stupid people. They know who has deprived the state of the opportunity for good-paying jobs. They will understand all the obstacles to mining loaded into the Schultz-Jauch measure. They will see their ploy for what is was - using peoples' livlihoods as pawns in their political games.

At the end of the day, it was the Democratic Party (and their Republican-In-Name-Only fellow traveler) that voted down the bill. At the end of the day, private-sector unions will see who opposed them, just a year aft­er they rallied to the Democrats' side for the public-sector unions. At the end of the day, regular citizens will see just what happens every time Democrats get their way:

We all pay, one way or another.

Richard Moore is the author of The New Bossism. His website is www.rmmoore1.com.





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